What Was Willie Mays’ Best Throw Ever? Not 1954, Says U.S. Navy Vet Bobby Hoeft!

Bobby Hoeft saw Mays in a
different uniform in 1953.

This week, I’m sharing treasures from the memory vault of Bobby Hoeft, author of When Baseball Was Fun and publisher of Detroit Tigers Quarterly.

Q: In the Navy, what player impressed you most?

A: “In 1953 I was playing with the Norfolk Navy Flyers.  We played against some great baseball players including Dick Groat, Johnny Antonelli and many more but the one player, who, incidentally also played center field, was the incomparable WILLIE MAYS.  He was electric,  amazing, and yet very humble. 

We were playing them at Fort Eustis in Virginia when he made a defensive gem which was even better than his 1954 World Series catch against VIC WERTZ of the Indians at the Polo Grounds.  This play was made just one year earlier on Bobby Jo Graham, our big catcher.  Graham smashed a 450 foot fast ball out into the darkness beyond the left field light poles. Everything was in play out there because there were no fences. 

Bobby Jo was into his home run trot while Mays was busy stationing himself in left field while the left fielder was chasing down the ball.  The ball suddenly comes flying out of the darkness and Willie Mays is now catching the ball and twisting into throwing position while Graham is innocently jogging between 3rd and home plate. 

From our dugout we could see what was happening and began screaming ‘RUN BOBBY JO, RUN!’  But to no good.  Willie had unleashed a missile that never touched the ground.  It was by far the greatest throw ever made in the history of baseball!  AND BOBBY JO WAS OUT.”

Coming Friday: Remembering Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell. 

This Catcher Called for Gaylord Perry’s Spitter

Same Autograph As 1967!

Jack Hiatt wore many caps in his baseball career:

1. Catcher-first baseman
2. Partner-in-crime
3. Director of Player Development, San Francisco Giants

Yep. Hey? What was that second one?

I asked about handling Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry’s “special” pitch. Did umpires ever object?

Hiatt didn’t mince words, writing:

“With Gaylord, he threw his spitter off a fastball sign I gave him. I had to adjust to it! Easier than you would have thought!”

Hiatt is an unsung hero to Giants fans who have rejoiced in the team’s post-season appearance. Hiatt retired after a 16-year career discovering and stockpiling talent. How did he measure his annual success in years when San Francisco didn’t have perfect seasons?

“As long as we could give the Big Club a choice of three to four players, it was a successful year! We had always had, and have, a lot of pitching with us now, and spread all over the major league due to trades.”

Lastly, don’t forget that Hiatt knew how to swing the bat. Exhibit A: April 25, 1969, all before the Candlestick faithful. As he tells it:

“On April 25th, 1969, my first AB with Willie Mays on first and two out, I hit a two-run HR to RF. In the 7th, RBI single and in the 13th, a grand slam walk-off to right center!”

Thanks, http://www.retrosheet.org/, for the coverage!

Pitcher Jack Smith’s 1962 Dodger Welcome

If it’s not exciting enough to make the majors, pitcher Jack Smith found his 1962 Dodgers debut in the midst of baseball history.
Teammate Maury Wills was stealing his way to a one-year record 104 bases. From one of the best seats in the house, Smith saw how Wills victimized rival hurlers, writing:

“Maury Wills was a good base stealer and studied the pitchers and replays.”

Smith had a great assessment of his one save in 1962. Did it compare to the thrill of a complete game?

“All saves are important, even in the old days.”

Smith’s Dodgers tied the Giants with an identical record to end the regular season. For the last time ever, the National League would call for a three-game tie-breaker playoff.

In the second game, Smith watched from the mound as two future Hall of Famers faced off.

He came in to relieve after the Giants scratched out two singles, the second from Willie Mays. Smith surrendered a run-scoring single to pinch-hitter Ed Bailey. When Mays tried to advance to third, umpire Jocko Conlan seemed to switch his call from safe to out. The indecision brought a rhubarb from Mays, third base coach Whitey Lockman and manager Alvin Dark. Did Conlan flip-flop, even getting it wrong?

Smith remains diplomatic about what unfolded:

“Yes, I think it was a fair call.”

Smith got the last word on the Giants, despite their advancement to the ’62 World Series. On June 12, 1964, the transplanted Milwaukee Brave posted three innings of hitless relief in Candlestick Park.

“It was fun to pitch in the Big Leagues. Always a pleasure.”

Recalling Padre Bob Barton’s Big Blast Of 1971 (Or, The Win That Got Away)

Grand Salami Time!

Bob Barton may have been one of baseball’s most chatty catchers.

Judging from his awesome letter, the receptive receiver seems capable of engaging any hitter in conversation. I think pitchers would have loved facing distracted batsmen.

Barton noted that some umpires were happy to converse, too. He noted one in particular, writing:

“Had a lot of conversations with Doug Harvey. He was just elected to the Hall of Fame. Great umpire. Good guy. We became friends.”

I discovered that Barton belted a 1971 grand slam. That was only the beginning to an epic story. Barton continued:

“I hit the grand slam against my old teammates, the Giants, in Candlestick Park in the top of the ninth with two outs to put us in front, 9-5, as the score was obviously tied. In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants scored five runs to beat us, 10-9 (I was with the Padres).

“We got 2 guys out in that bottom of the ninth before a dear friend of mine, Dick Dietz, hit a 3-run, 2-out double to clear the bases and drive in the 8th, 9th and 10th runs to beat us. The two hitters we got out before Dick hit the double were a couple of pretty good hitters — their names — Willie Mays and Willie McCovey!

“True Story! Enjoy!”

Barton noted his career potential:

“Nine passed balls in eight years in the M.L. with a throwing-out potential base stealers of 43%. Might be an all-time best of the two together. Proud of that.

“But I got caught behind two all-star catchers, Tom Haller in S.F. and [Johnny] Bench in Cincinnati. Frustrating not getting to play more. Made five all-star teams on my way to the M.L. in the minors.”

Old catchers are sponges. They soak up all the game’s details. The Bob Bartons of baseball history have so much to share. I hope someone keeps asking.

(If you hadn’t guessed, www.retrosheet.org did it again. Barton’s big day brought to life. Thanks, guys!)

What Did Willie Mays and Ernie Fazio Share?

Ernie Fazio is remembered as a steady infielder of the 1960s. However, on August 18, 1963, he shared the same path of a future Hall of Famer.

 “I will never forget my first major league home run off Warren Spahn. It was a great thrill and an accomplishment by another great ballplayer, Willie Mays.”

(Thanks to the fine folks at http://www.retrosheet.org/, you can remember Fazio’s historic dinger here!)

In a sense, Fazio began the Houston franchise. The team signed Fazio first, hours before they made a deal with Rusty Staub. I asked Fazio about a seldom-mentioned topic in the pre-Astrodome days.

“The humidity and mosquitoes in Houston in 1962 was unbearable. The mosquitoes ate you alive. what I did try was to eat a lot of peanut butter to keep the mosquitoes away. It helped a little. Johnny temple supplied the peanut butter.”

Just as Curt Flood stood up for free agency, Fazio is on the front line in the battle for pension rights. He’s one of the slighted major leaguers who, prior to 1980, needed four full seasons to qualify for a pension. Baseball signed a new contract granting pensions to anyone with only 43 days of service, but never provided retroactive acknowledgement of the hundreds who deserved the same benefit from seasons past.

“As for the pension plan, I still represent about 1,000 players who played in the major leagues but are not vested in the pension. We are finally making some progress. It is not about money. We are part of history.”

Despite baseball’s unwillingness to recognize Fazio’s service, he harbors no bitterness.

“Baseball was great. I do not think I was ready for the big leagues, going straight from college and playing against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a matter of five days. I wish I was still connected to baseball in some way. The pension is a problem. But I would not change anything. I love the game and always will.”

Playing in Houston and Kansas City, Fazio flew under the radar of most baseball media. I found but one account of his Houston toiling at this fun Astros history website.

For the whole picture of the pension fight Fazio and his compatriots are waging, be sure to read Douglas Gladstone’s A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve

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